It isn’t March anymore.
Back in March, a fearful public responded quickly to COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S., cutting back on activity and largely complying with unprecedented new rules and restrictions.
Few protested when schools shut down, or businesses were shuttered, or when communities barred children from local playgrounds. People were, by and large, extremely cooperative as their lives turned upside down.
Flash forward nine months, and the mood is decidedly different.
A second wave of COVID is fueling a surge in cases and hospitalizations, but it’s hard to imagine people greeting a second lockdown with the same level of equanimity that they did in the spring.
A curfew for bars, restaurants and gyms, announced last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has mostly met with eyerolls, while a number of local sheriffs have said they won’t enforce the governor’s new, 10-person limit on Thanksgiving gatherings.
The abrupt shutdown of public schools in New York City, on Wednesday, inspired immediate pushback, with a group of families announcing plans to deliver a petition to keep schools open to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In the early days of the pandemic, people welcomed guidance from the state, and were generally willing to follow it. Cuomo’s daily press briefings made him one of the most popular politicians in America.
Things have changed.
New Yorkers are weary of restrictions, and less inclined to follow them.
“Stay home,” the COVID-19 mantra from last spring, no longer resonates with a large swath of the public. Cuomo’s popularity has slipped. A growing number of New Yorkers are tuning out the governor, at a time when a renewed commitment to getting coronavirus under control is needed.
Part of the problem might be that Cuomo’s overbearing leadership style is wearing on people.
His feud with the Trump administration over vaccine distribution was an unnecessary distraction – a silly, pointless fight that risked undermining New Yorker’s confidence in a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
But the clearest sign yet that Cuomo’s command of the state’s COVID-19 response has gotten off track might have come at the governor’s Wednesday press briefing, when he lashed out at reporters for asking whether New York City schools would shut down.
When Wall Street Journal reporter Jimmy Vielkind told the governor that he was still confused by the school situation, and that parents were “still confused as well,” Cuomo said, “They’re not confused, you’re confused. Read the law, and you won’t be confused.”
Ultimately, it was the governor who seemed confused, appearing surprised when a reporter informed him that the New York City schools chancellor had announced a city-wide school shutdown, beginning Thursday.
Later, Cuomo told WAMC’s Alan Chartock that “if you’re socially distant, and you wore a mask, and you were smart, none of this would be a problem – it’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem.”
The comment was greeted with derision online, and rightly so.
Personal responsibility is important, but blaming individual New Yorkers for the surge in COVID-19 cases is the opposite of good public health messaging.
In fact, it could be a sign that the governor doesn’t know what to say to get people to start listening to him again.
That’s understandable, but also unfortunate.
It’s long past time for a new approach to communicating with the public about COVID-19, one that relies more on public health officials to deliver updates and guidance than the governor. Maybe it’s time for a doctor, or an epidemiologist, to take center stage at these briefings.
New Yorkers aren’t just suffering from COVID fatigue.
They’re suffering from Cuomo fatigue, too.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.
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